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Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Transcending the Archetypes of War: An Interview with Phil Klay

March 4, 2014 | by

Phil Klay

Photo: Hannah Dunphy

In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.

Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.

First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?

It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.

It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.

“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?

A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »

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Your Eyes Deceive You: Claire Beckett at the Wadsworth Atheneum

August 7, 2012 | by

Marine Lance Corporal Nicole Camala Veen Playing the Role of an Iraqi Nurse, Wadi Al-Sahara, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, CA, 2008

In Hartford overnight for reasons that would take too long to explain, my wife and I visited the Wadsworth Atheneum, the city’s art museum, where she had interned a number of years before. Hartford is one of those midsize American cities, like Cincinnati or Worcester, dominated by Chris Ware cityscapes.

The Atheneum is a small, good museum and interesting in that way that Hartford is interesting: on a comparatively small stage the choices are more evident, the collections more particular. Things that would be pushed into the storeroom at another museum are given fascinating pride of place. What is less well known is not so consistently edged out by what is too well known.

We walked past the museum’s two Balthuses into a room full of photos of men in headdresses, dusty streets, namelessly Middle Eastern scenes. A man fiddling with a bomb. Something was off, however: there was too much unfinished plywood and the people staring into the camera were clearly … what?

We slowed down, read wall text. This woman is a Marine lance corporal.

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Larger than News; Professional M.F.A. People

July 1, 2011 | by

Hi Mr. Stein. I went to a talk you gave many months ago at McNally Jackson about The Paris Review. You said something that has stayed in my mind, especially now that President Obama has said that we will be withdrawing from Afghanistan. You said that you believe what you’re doing with The Paris Review (and literature in general) was just as important as the coverage a newspaper like The New York Times gives to the wars in the Middle East. Can you explain? I see in some ways how you are making a point, but I can’t help but think that literature has to weigh a little bit lower on the scale of important things, especially against war.
Sincerely,
Thom

Yikes! I hope I didn’t say that—I certainly don’t think it! What I can imagine saying is that, in one person’s tiny life, it is possible for art to loom larger than the news of the day. I can also imagine saying that this strikes me as a good thing. There are people the country needs to hear from regarding military strategy, and people it doesn’t. I, for instance, am someone with whom there’s not much point discussing troop levels.

Your question makes me think of Roberto Bolaño’s comic novel The Third Reich, all about a writer who sacrifices everything—love, friends, home, job—for a board game ... a board game in which he restrategizes the entire Second World War so the Nazis will win. Writers are like that. They are, among other things, people for whom the unimportant outweighs the important. What’s more (at least in Bolaño’s fiction), they are people you wouldn’t want to see involved in foreign policy, because they’d screw it up, or play—as often as not—for the wrong side.

What do you think of M.F.A. programs? A. R. Ammons says in his Paris Review interview that “it sometimes happens that these professional M.F.A. people are also poets, but it rarely happens.” Do you agree with Ammons, or do you think these places can play a meaningful role in nurturing poets and other writers? Yours, E. M.

I think A. R. Ammons is using the word poet in a special way. Poets often do. He means there are not many great poets in writing programs. It’s true: but then, there are not many great poets anywhere. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn something about poetry in a writing program. And most of them are nothing if not nurturing. For me the question is whether nurturing—whether being part of a caring community—makes for better work or for poems that people will actually want to read out there in the cold, hard world. For others, being part of that community is a powerful incentive to write. For these people, I think an M.F.A. makes all kinds of sense.

Have a question for The Paris Review? E-mail us.

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